The stress of a natural disaster during pregnancy may substantially increase the risk of childhood anxiety, depression or other behavior disorders, according to a new study published Wednesday in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the CUNY Graduate Center found that children who were in the womb during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 were more likely to develop psychological and behavior disorders than those who were born before or conceived after, with stark contrast.
Fifty-three percent of children who were exposed to Hurricane Sandy in utero tested for an anxiety disorder, compared to 22 percent of children who weren’t, according to the study.
About 30 percent of exposed children tested for attention deficit or disruptive behavior disorders, compared to 8.1 percent of children born before or conceived after Hurricane Sandy. The researchers called their findings “extremely alarming.”
“We’ve known for some time that maternal stress during pregnancy plays a key role in the mental health development of the child,” said Yoko Nomura, a professor of psychology at CUNY Queens College and co-author of the study.
She added that the increased frequency of natural disasters driven by climate change makes this type of research more necessary.
Disorders varied by biological sex, the researchers found.
Female children were at much higher risk to develop anxiety, phobia and depressive disorders, while males were at increased risk for attention deficit and disruptive behavioral disorders, like ADHD.
This survey is part of ongoing research from Nomura and her team in studying the effects of in-utero exposure on childhood development. Of the 163 preschool-age children surveyed as part of this study, 66 were in utero during Hurricane sandy, and the remaining 97 were not.
The findings could “serve as an important resiliency-strategy resource that informs health care professionals, policy makers and educational institutions on the need for infrastructure that supports pregnant women and families exposed to climate-related natural disasters in order to mitigate early mental health risks,” the report said.
Dangerous and costly natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy are occurring more frequently, especially as climate change heats up the globe and drives droughts, heavy rainfall leading to floods, and other weather crises. This is a point of concern for pregnant women and their children, both young and still in the womb, as there is a lack of mental health infrastructure to mitigate stress during these calamities, Nomura said.
The children surveyed as part of this study were between 2 and 5 years old. About 86 percent of the participants belonged to a racial or ethnic minority. The study otherwise controlled for variables, such as tobacco or drug use during pregnancy.